The Venezuelan revolution has aged prematurely in the four years since Hugo Chavez’s death in March 2013. The cheerfulness of the Venezuelan people has given way to a more brooding mood on the streets. In the divergence of opinion on who or what is to blame, apathy and weary resignation have taken the place of either revolutionary exuberance or visceral hatred for the “regime”.
The country resembles a once-happy alcoholic (of which there were many when beer was cheap) who has suddenly lost access to his tipple: at least that was the impression I gained during my recent travel there. The fall in petroleum prices has brought about an economic slowdown; the abundance of the Chavez years has gone, and Venezuelans now accept they will never live those times again.
Very little remains of outdoor political symbols, whether posters, banners or graffiti; it is as though politics has been exorcised from the streets. Conversations that in the past would turn to political debates is now dominated by a furious exchange of information on where to find bread, sugar or maize, and at what price. There are queues at the supermarkets, though less than what it used to be I was told, and black-marketeers locally known as ‘bachaqueros’ sell their wares openly from roadside tables, the prices displayed without any fear of authority.
The shelves are full at the more up-market stores, except essential food and hygiene items. Packets of pre-cooked maize or wheat are scarce but not biscuits or chips made from them; bread is hard to find but the bakeries are well-stocked with cakes and sweets, both made from the same flour, imported and supplied by the state. What is not found in the shops is found outside the same stores with the bachaqueros, often working in tandem with the store-owners.
The black-market infrastructure is enormous, sustained by shortages and market distortion induced by the private distribution monopolies using their power to destroy the revolution, corruption among the state functionaries and the participation of a part of the poor who feed off other poor people. The state regulates the prices of essential food and hygiene products and medicines, which are smuggled on an industrial scale to the neighbouring countries, mostly Colombia.
The Venezuelan economy has been effectively dollarized and the rates are set from Miami and Colombia, which private businesses use to put up prices at will. The black-market dollar is a powerful tool to undermine the revolution, destabilising the economy almost hourly and hurting the poor and the middle class that rose with the revolution, hoping to turn them against the government.
The state has generously increased the minimum wages and salaries, though this has not been enough to counter the uncontrolled inflation: most things cost a hundred time more than five years ago. Once a month, the state sells a limited quantity of essential food items to some six million families at reasonable rates and even opposition neighbourhoods wait anxiously for the deliveries before complaining that they are being subjected to the disgrace of Cuban-style rationing.
The monthly food boxes that the government distributes to the families at affordable rates through the Local Committees for Feeding and Production (CLAP). Photo: Telesur
With wages failing to keep up with prices, living standards are falling and the new Venezuelan gold rush is emigration, looking for any work anywhere that pays in US dollars, hoping to regain their affluence back home. At the departure lounge, I spoke to a qualified railway engineer who told me as he struggled to hold back his tears he was going to the Dominican Republic on a tourist visa, hoping to find work there as a manual worker and sell his dollars on the black-market back home to sustain the young family he was leaving behind. There are many like him, qualified professionals-turned-hawkers (or even prostitutes) on the streets of Panama City, Bogota or Lima, running from the police and insulted by the locals and immigration officials. Venezuela has been extraordinarily welcoming throughout its history to immigrants from Europe, Latin America and the Middle East; today they find themselves being treated like pests.
I found few closed shops, although the locals told me that many small business had packed up. The cars on the streets were mostly modern, as were the state buses that seemed greater in number and everywhere, clean, cheap and efficiently run. Petrol and electricity are as good as free, and in which the Venezuelans remain as wasteful as ever. The state is building houses in record numbers, 1.6 million so far despite the economic downturn, and these can be spotted in every city. Venezuela achieved 100% universal primary health coverage while I was there. There appeared to be less obese people and I did see some beggars, signs of homelessness and street children, things that had almost disappeared during the latter Chavez period. The poor go hungry at times, but mass starvation there isn’t.
The fear of crime, mostly mugging, runs high as it did in the past, though the highways were full of cars till late at night, and in the smaller towns and villages, it is not uncommon to find people sleeping with their doors open. What I did not find was any great support for the opposition or confidence in their leaders. The opposition want to send their children abroad rather than to the barricades. Every family I met had Chavez and opposition supporters and they seemed to keep together despite their differences and occasional political barbs. The locals have learnt to avoid places where violence could break out but bricks, burnt tyre marks and broken glasses can be seen on a few streets in the mornings as evidence of the almost ritual nightly violence.
The opposition wants to burn the votes that elected Maduro. Cartoon by Eneko
The Venezuelan revolution is on the defensive, threatened by falling resources and international hostility, trying to survive one day — and multiple threats — at a time. The authority of the state has been seriously weakened. Chavez was unpredictable to his enemies and infallible to his supporters. Nicolas Maduro is neither. Even the most ardent Chavista accepted that the revolution could lose the next presidential election but the opposition with its unforgiving genocidal rage frightens them and the neutrals. If Chavismo loses, a bloodbath is likely. If it somehow holds on to power, Venezuela will perhaps get another opportunity to reconstruct itself as a post-petroleum nation. As of now, it is not certain, and no one could tell me with any assurance, which direction the country will choose.